Chapter 1: Hitch-hiking and the Umbilical Cord
Still in the womb:
Beginning to wean:
Active revolt against parental domination:
These girls illustrate three different stages of emancipation from childhood. The first one, though entering her twenties, is still tightly bound to her mother. In talking to the interviewer, a complete stranger, about her mother and herself, she apparently feels there is nothing odd or babyish in saying:
Mother tends to want the best for her, and protect her in a way .... The girl readily admits that she has not thought for herself but has simply adopted her parents' attitudes. She hasn't begun to become an adult
The second girl, though not daring to break into open conflict with her parents, is beginning to allow herself to doubt the sacrosanctity of their views. Hitch-hiking is a thing she sees many of her contemporaries doing and she sees nothing to condemn in it.
The third student sees hitch-hiking as a central factor in her open conflict with her parents, in her bid to demand that they accept her adulthood. In hitch-hiking she finds a way of physically escaping from home. The thumbing convention allows her to travel around almost without money, money which she would presumably have to get from home. Hitching also affords her psychic escape from her parents. Since they have made it an issue, since they have made it clear she must not hitch, by hitching she defies them and proclaims the integrity and independence of her own personality. Finally hitching offers her a temporary, perhaps illusory escape from the social background of her upbringing. Daughter of a company director, she has the chance of mixing with lorry drivers, of jumping, or appearing to herself to jump class barriers. In her case, as in the case of many young people, hitch-hiking emerges as both a practical and symbolic issue in their struggle for emancipation from their parents' psychological and sometimes financial control over them. The first tentative lifts hitched can sometimes resemble the Boston Tea Party. They may be the start of a long drawn out war of independence from 'parental colonialism'.
All the same it would be wrong to jump to the conclusion that all parents oppose their children when they show a propensity to start hitch-hiking, if they do. People (see Appendix I) hitching at the London mouth of the M.1, near K garage were asked:
In other words around one third of the nearly seven hundred thumbers had parents who more or less approved of them hitch-hiking when they started; about one third had parents who disapproved or were anxious and rather more than one fifth had parents who didn't mind either way.
The above is in no sense a statistically trustworthy sample (see Appendix I). All that I intend to show by presenting these figures is that the parent-child conflict over hitch-hiking is a widespread phenomenon in families where teenagers suddenly take it into their heads to hitch-hike.
The likelihood of conflict depends on a great number of factors, how authoritarian or otherwise the parents are, the age it occurs to the child to try hitching, the sex of the child, the child's own personality and capacity to cope for himself etc.... Without knowing these factors and many more in each particular case, not much more can be said about the above figures. All they show is that conflict exists on a reasonably large scale—it is not confined to a fringe of families.
In order to get more of a picture of the ways parents and off-spring interreact over hitching 186 people picked up in my van were interviewed in more detail than the hurriedly questioned M.1 respondents (see Appendix II). The parents fall into various categories, ranging from those strongly for to those violently anti. To start at the positive end of the scale:
Sometimes parents disagree about whether their child should be allowed to hitch-hike. One parent may foist the burden of making a decision onto the other:
A small minority of parents who have children who hitch apparently feel violent antipathy to the idea of their own flesh and blood standing by the roadside thumbing. Two examples of this extreme group will suffice:
It may be relevant that both the civil engineer's son and the architect's daughter have got themselves jobs of lower status than their parents' presumable ambitions for them. This and the imaginable resultant tensions in the families might explain the violence of parental riposte
Quite a number of virgin hitch-hikers seem to fear strong negative feelings at home and avoid facing them by not telling their parents. What the eye does not see .... Sometimes the deception goes on over quite a period of time during which the teenager hitches regularly. The most extreme case found was that of a 26 year old, lah-di-dah, outwardly self-confident art dealer's assistant. She was the daughter of a rich farmer. When she was 16½ she lit off to Europe with her boy friend of the moment. Neither her father nor mother knew she was hitching. When her mother found out she was: terribly upset, she thought it degrading and dangerous. The father was never told by either her or her mother. Ten years later he still did not know his daughter had been hitching round Europe at 16½, and regularly thumbing for several years after that. Presumably he was never told because both women feared his anger.
The above is an example of total concealment. Several of the 186 respondents spoke of partial deception:
A sizeable group of parents opposed their children's hitching not on principle or because the very idea seemed to them outrageous, but because they did not like the thought of their children having to face the difficulties and dangers of the road. Imaginatively they lived through the accidents their children might get involved in, the lifts with bad drivers, the morally dangerous lifts and so on ...:
Some of the parents of the 186 respondents questioned in my van didn't make any fuss about their children wanting to hitch. They took it completely for granted. It seemed natural or even unimportant to them. A sizeable fraction of the parents of the nearly seven hundred M.1 mouth respondents fell into this category (about one fifth). Are they perhaps the most successful and mature parents? One of the students I interviewed in Cambridge was certainly surprised at his parents' equanimity:
Whether this man's parents and the others like them are the most mature in their attitudes towards their offspring is perhaps a moot point—they are certainly the least uptight.
Children whose parents fail to grant them adult status as they are gradually growing into it have no alternative but to seize it for themselves. Hitch-hiking, which makes possible escape from the home and all that implies in terms of parental surveillance, and which allows for almost free mobility, without the humiliation of needing to rely on parents for financial support, has an immediate attraction to the young person in an incipient phase of the revolt that may be necessary for the afirmation of his own separate identity. When the paren tries to disssuade a child, especially a son, from thumbing he is probably reinforcing the desire to try it. The father says to the son: It's difficult, it's risky, you won't be able to get lifts etc.... This kind of paternal reaction immediately turns hitch-hiking into a challenge to the boy's courage and virility. If the boy has backbone there could be no more counter-productive way of dissuading him:
A boy may also, like Gibben's joy riders in Chapter 6, be reacting against the over intimate protectiveness of the mother. In the case of the 19 year old technical college student below, this is probably one of the factors pushing him to hitch—his mother certainly comes through as a personality who still over-shadows, even half submerges him:
Lucky for this man that he does hitch-hike all the same!
In so far as hitch-hiking turns out to be a conflictual issue between parents and teenagers attitudes to hitch-hiking on the part of young people often tell one quite a lot about their rapport with their parents and evolution in attitudes to hitching about changes in this relationship. There are certain family situations in which thumbing is more likely to become a bone of contention than in others. Parents tend to be more apprehensive over girls hitching than boys. Their anxiety is greater over young children hitching than older ones. The smaller the family and the more protective the parents the more there is likelihood of a clash. On these criteria certain types of middle class and professional homes would seem more likely to witness conflict than larger working class families.
Acting on these hunches I got girls in a fee-paying part boarding school in the North West to write essays on Hitch-hiking They were given no further guidance—the teacher simply told them the essays were wanted for research and asked them to write anything they felt like for half an hour.
20 fourth-form girls, aged around 13, came out as in the main congruent and acceptant of their parents' negative feelings about hitch-hiking. As a group they appear firmly entrenched in the particular prejudices of their parents' part of the previous generation. Only 3 or 4 of them state their parents' aversion and then point out that other points of view do exist. In other words, in early puberty, under the influence of small, tight families and an authoritarian, maternalistic, minor public school, they maintain obedient attitudes, and therefore very similar ones. Here are two examples of 'obedient' essays:
Even the 3 or 4 girls in whom there is a nascent glimmer of disagreement with their parents' views very quickly hedge their shy movement towards approving of thumbing with a massive exposition of the dangers and disadvantages. So for instance this 13 year old, civil engineer's daughter who carefully puts everything in the conditional:
The 7 essays written on the same subject by sixth form girls in the same school were radically different in tone and attitude. Out of 7 only I was firmly anti-hitch-hiking, 2 were on the fence and 4 were in favour, despite parental objections. The girl who was anti was interestingly from a skilled working class home, presumably a socially 'rising' one:
The most interesting thing about this essay is that it gives the key to the change in attitudes evident in this school between the fourth and sixth forms. The girl says: I have never been hitch-hiking, and have never met anybody who really has. She is the exception in her form—most of the other girls are beginning to come into contact with other teenagers outside the narrow confines of their sheltered school life. From new friends outside the mental 'clausura' they suddenly learn that you can go thumbing and not be automatically raped and strangled by the first man who picks you up. Given their curious, earlier conditioning this comes as a surprise to some of them. Their change of attitude brings them into a state of mental conflict with their parents. The change of attitude to thumbing and consequent stretching of the umbilical cord is excellently put by the 16 year old daughter of a Coal Board clerk:
While the decorator's daughter did not hitch because she had never met anybody who had, in other words because no one had introduced her to the idea, the clerk's daughter had the idea suddenly thrown at her for the first time by a 'student'. She was still a mere schoolgirl and here was a college student willing to be her friend, though she was only 16, willing to take her into college society. When she found that hitch-hiking seemed to be the done thing at college, she naturally didn't want to be out of step. After all most of her training both at home and at school had probably been directed to making her accept group values. The college group was now the one she aspired to join and so she easily accepted the idea of hitching, despite her earlier reservations.
You might object that the difference in attitudes to hitching between the fourth form and sixth form girls is simply due to the fact that it is less imprudent for older girls to go thumbing and so there may have been a common sense relaxation in parental policy. This does not seem to be the case. The sixth formers who come out in favour of hitching report just as much hostility to the habit on their parents' part as do the fourth formers.
So for instance this 16 year old commercial manager's daughter:
Poor parents, how negative they seem to these 16 year olds:
To young people thumbing isn't always just a question of narrow conflict with their parents. Often it is a means of broadening out of extending horizons to achieve a kind of human freedom it is very difficult to evoke with words. It's an emancipation in terms of place and time. You no longer feel bound by these two factors which in ordinary life hold you to the board as firmly as pins do a butterfly. It is an emancipation from your role in society, be it as a child, a brother, a sister, an apprentice, a student, a worker or whatever. It is release from ordinary responsibilities. In a way hitchhiking is a kind of long drawn out, pleasurable fantasy—this is what makes it so attractive to young people, what makes its relative hardships seem so trivial and unimportant to them.
Many people who have hitched long distances speak of the sense of liberation it gives them. So this Mexican Indian girl:
Nobody has tabs on her, she can go where she likes, when she likes, for as long as she likes. This kind of hitcher avoids planning and thus lives the fantasy of freedom to the full. In All The Time In The World Hugo Williams tells how he got himself a lift across the desert from Jordan to Kuwait on a huge truck:
In an odd sense, though, Williams' feeling of freedom from planning is calculated self-conscious and very Western. He plans not to plan, and he is not the only one to do this. Maybe as a civilisation we are so tense and overwrought that this is the only way we can let go, short of using chemical means, like drugs or drink.
The heady falling in love with hitch-hiking seems in most 'addicts' lives to be a stage passed through but which gets naturally sloughed off. This is precisely what happened to the amazing Barbara Starke who in the late 1920's hitch-hiked alone across the USA, from her home in the East and back. She did it to escape the pressures and the narrowness of her environment, her protestant Yankee family and the obscurantism of her college education. In her book Touch And Go she describes the psychological point of her journey:
Though she didn't feel very happy about going back into the net, after a time on the road she wanted to go back to a more normal life:
Barbara Starke went back to ordinary life with potent regrets. She had partially worked through the emotions triggering off wanderlust, but not by any means completely. To some extent she had to force herself back into the net. She still saw life in New York as a net. Most people who have lived through a prolonged 'hitch-hiking fantasy' find leaving it, coming out of it, hard, yet at a certain stage in the development of the personality the abandonment of hitching seems to impose itself. I was lucky enough to catch a Cambridge undergraduate in the middle of the sloughing period, a time of consolidation, an inevitable but very sad part of the growing up process. He spoke first about the freedom he had found in thumbing and then about the fall-away period:
Why do people stop hitching? Usually they don't suddenly consciously stop—one day it dawns on them that they haven't been hitching for a year and maybe wonder why. The two practical events that most often mark the end of a person's thumbing career are the acquisition of a car or the arrival of a baby. It is extremely strange, but I have never seen or even heard of a couple hitching with a small baby, at least not in Britain. You often get young marrieds thumbing but not once they have a baby to cart around. Having a baby or getting a car seem to be much more often the end of hitching than leaving college or finishing an apprenticeship. (None of this, of course, applies to the 'industrial' hitchers, the car delivery men.)
Cars and babies get more frequent among people in their late twenties, which perhaps explains why, platers apart, most hitch-hikers are under thirty.
The end of hitch-hiking is clearly most often determined by practical factors, but it is rare for emotional elements not to be involved behind the scenes. When hitch-hiking loses its attraction, and from a pleasure turns into a bind, then a man is much more likely to want to buy himself a car. When two people, whose hitching started off as adolescent rebellion against over protective parents, marry, establish themselves and push their parents into grandparenthood, then the emotional need to hitch is likely to be on the wane. They don't need to make gestures of independence, or live out mile after mile of freedom fantasy; they are factually, economically, and if they are lucky, psychologically independent. Hitch-hiking has played its part in stretching, if not slicing, the umbilical cord.